Making the call: Bike bell vs. bike horn

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I Love My BikeLast week, I wrote about travelling northbound on the Burrard St. bridge. Comments on the post brought up some concern over the use of a bike horn instead of a bike bell. I admit that I was surprised at the opposition to the bike horn. To me, a bike horn is an essential safety device when commuting in Vancouver.

My bicycle is equipped with both a bell (an MEC Universal Bicycle Bell) and an Air Zound bicycle horn. The bell is a typical thumb-actuated rotary bell; it makes a satisfyingly stereotypical ring-ring sound. The horn is an air-pressure horn that has an air reservoir that you pump up with a tire pump and then activate with a thumb switch. It’s about as loud as a car horn, but pitched a bit higher.

I use the horn in cases when I need someone else to know where I am. Typical cases are alerting motorists who haven’t looked in my direction and are either uncomfortably close or appear to be about to do something that could affect my safety. I’ll also use it to alert joggers or pedestrians with head-phones in who are in my lane and can’t see me, or who are about to step into my lane. In most cases involving pedestrians and cyclists, I’ll use my bell or voice. In most cases involving motorists, I’ll use the horn.

As I mentioned in the comments of last week’s post:

I’m not going to apologize for using it. I have a bell on my bike and use it when appropriate. I use the horn in cases where I know a bell will not be effective (or heard). In each of the cases in the video, it was justified:
1. Jeep turning right through yellow/red light at Burrard/1st without looking at me. The driver had not stopped at the yellow/red light (see below). She was turning into where I was going to be and still hadn’t looked at me. The horn got her attention and everybody was safe.
2. Pedestrian walking illegally in the bike lane on the bridge, wearing headphones, in my direction of travel. Because of the road noise, and the fact that he had headphones on, I gave a small toot of the horn. It announced my presence and everybody was safe. There’s no way he would have heard a bike bell.
3. SUV driver making illegal right turn against a red light without looking for bikes at Hornby and Smithe. Again, a bell would not have been effective here. Without the horn, there would have been some (Okay, probably a lot) yelling.

Objections to my use of the horn seemed to revolve around the idea that using a horn on a bike is overly-aggressive and reflects poorly on cyclists in general.

My position is that using the horn is a requirement of making sure that my commute is safe for me and everyone that I encounter.

On the issue of using a bell instead of a horn, I have long felt that using a bike bell to alert motorists was futile. To investigate this a bit, I took my helmet-cam and mounted it inside a car. The car was running, with the radio on at a low volume. I then drove by ringing my bell and sounding the horn. Boy, let me tell you there’s no better way to feel self-conscious than to do this a few times. Regardless, I’ve posted the results to YouTube: http://youtu.be/zrHzw2Zd1eQ

2012-03 Bell vs Horn

As you can tell from the video, the bell is completely inaudible from within the car, while the horn can be clearly heard. The video demonstrates quite clearly that motorists are unlikely to hear a bike bell unless the window is down. The video was taken on a relatively quiet street while the car was stationary. In a moving vehicle on a busy street, it would be impossible to hear a bike bell.

What do you think about horns on bikes? Do you use one?

Last modified: March 5, 2012

15 Responses to " Making the call: Bike bell vs. bike horn "

  1. Christina says:

    Have a horn, and will use it. I don’t understand, though, why cyclists and pedestrians can’t respect each other’s space (cars are a whole other issue). I’ve been incredibly frustrated as a cyclist crossing the Burrard bridge trying to navigate around pedestrians dozily walking in the bike lane (at least pay attention if you’re going to walk illegally in a lane that’s meant for vehicles, even two-wheeled ones!), and as a pedestrian on the Granville bridge I’ve been yelled at/nearly run over for not getting out of the way of a cyclist riding on the sidewalk (many times on this one, actually). Because I’m on a sidewalk there (where vehicles are not allowed — even two-wheeled ones), I’m not tuned to the approach of bikes, and do often have earphones in, and probably don’t hear bells, if they are rung. So I think it’s partly context. I’ll toot my horn as a pedestrian in the Burrard bike lane, but if a cyclist used one to get my attention on the Granville bridge sidewalk, I’d be furious.

  2. Jason says:

    Have airhorn, will cycle. I am judicious in my use of it. If someone takes offense at it, that’s their problem, not mine.

  3. Alex P says:

    I use the air horn as well. I personally though just slow down and go around if someone is walking in the burrard bike lane, but the air horn is very useful as a safety tool to me in many other contexts. It’s a piece of safety equipment that can help prevent a collision in the first place rather than just mediate its effects.

  4. Matthew says:

    I have been toying with getting an airhorn for a while … as it is clear (even even I had not watched your video) that a bell signals nothing to a car, or even to pedestrians wearing headphones.

  5. Wayne says:

    I’ve never had a horn, and probably wouldn’t use it if I had one. My first instinct is to bell, but if that doesn’t elicit a reaction, or I see that the other person/driver can’t hear the bell, I’m quite happy to shout – at volumes and tones dependent on the situation – something like “hello” or simply “hey!”. If nothing else it gets the attention of passers-by aka potential witnesses.

  6. Bill Barilko says:

    ” If someone takes offense at it, that’s their problem, not mine.”

    Very typical of the ‘me first’ attitude that fouls this once fine city and contributes to ever accelerating civil decay.

    A facetious person would congratulate you on your boorishness-but I’m not quite that jaded.

    I have a bell/know how to use it and in the rare event someone can’t hear it can project my voice to get their attention.

  7. Jason says:

    When it comes to my safety and well-being, yes, it is in fact, “Me First”.

    Bill, I trust you are aware that ad hominem is a logical fallacy, regardless how thinly veiled. Do try to be above that.

  8. Mojo says:

    Keep up the good work Anthony! I am very happy that you are fronting these issues.

    I am very surprised about how much fuss people make about the horn versus the bell – the big problem and danger for us bikers is that we are largely invisible, inaudible and unnoticed until the damage has already happened.

    Great post on the clearly dangerous and illogical way bikers are supposed to get off Burrard bridge and continue up into town. There are several points on that route that should cause red faces among city planners. I think I got it figured how to get into town, but what is the best way of getting onto the bridge again?

    Three honks for Anthony! Balls to bells!

  9. Mathew says:

    I have been following the comments on these two posts with interest; I don’t have strong feelings about the specific controversies you are discussing but you should be commended on taking a scientific approach with the bell vs horn test in your YouTube video. Ideally, though, the audio on the radio would have been identical each time. It seems clear that the horn would have been audible in the car almost regardless of what music was on the radio, but I wonder if the music playing in the first part of the test was particularly unfavourable for the bell.

  10. Phil says:

    Nice post Anthony – again, I’m grateful you’re posting on what I think is an important issue and allowing commuters in Vancouver to have a dialogue about this.

    Firstly, while appreciate the time and effort required to record that video, I don’t feel it proves anything. All we are hearing, to judge audibility, is what your *camera* hears, and not what the human ear would. This is an important distinction, and I think it renders your test anecdotal at best. Of course, it also depends on the style and make of bike bell being used – the audibility and volume vary widely and, sadly, most are poorly designed.

    The last thing I want to do is discourage someone from using a safety measure that they believe is truly necessary – I’m happy Vancouver is seeing more cyclists on the streets. If you feel using an air horn is a necessary measure for your safety, I wouldn’t expect you to stop using one. But again to me, they’re offensive, startling to pedestrians, excessively loud and accomplish nothing that a raised voice couldn’t. As cut throat as streets can be to Cyclists and Drivers a like, I am still someone who attempts civility in my interactions – and I don’t feel an Air Zound is aligned with that mentality.

  11. S. Morris Rose says:

    I’m befuddled that there is controversy here. Automobiles, motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds all have horns loud enough to be heard by other road users- in fact, you can’t make and sell any of these vehicles without- and there is zero controversy. Airzound has figured out how to make one ($19 at MEC, by the way) that’s practical on a vehicle without an electrical system. Huzzah! It even has a volume control, which I have yet to see on an electric horn. But using one is somehow supposed to put the user into the cohort of those who don’t attempt civility in their interactions. Huh?

    Speaking of civility, many motorists believe that the occasion of remotely locking or unlocking their vehicle is an acceptable time to honk their horns. Say, before 7 in the morning as they park their cars before work, or at midnight when they stumble home from the pub. In my world, that’s the cohort of the uncivil, not the bicycle commuter who just wants a way to be heard like every other vehicle on the road. That’s for safety, not for convenience.

  12. S. Morris Rose says:

    Unable to shut myself up, I somehow need to add the observation that anybody who finds the road culture here cutthroat cannot have been many other places in this world. What we have ain’t perfect, but it’s pretty good by most comparisons. And as far as I can tell, it’s only getting better.

  13. Wayne says:

    Good points Mr Rose!

  14. Trev says:

    @jason Use your airhorn…but just stay off of the sidewalk. I’m paying for your bike lanes so please use them.

  15. Anthony says:

    I’m late responding here, but thanks for all the comments!

    @christina I hear you about the “spaces for users” thing. Bikes off the sidewalks, pedestrians out of the bike lanes.

    @mojo I think I’ve got at least one or two more Burrard Bridge posts coming.

    @mathew Yeah, it wasn’t exactly the most controlled experiment. But, I think it at least demonstrated the point I was trying to make. I was actually quite surprised that no matter how much I amplified the volume, I couldn’t make out the bike bell at all.

    @phil I agree with most of what you’ve said about the “test”, but I don’t agree with your conclusion 🙂 I think it does demonstrate the point I was trying to make, but I agree that it could have been more controlled. I have outtakes that record the sound of the bell while the camera’s on my head, and the sound of the horn. You can clearly hear both, but I’m also 24″ away from them. As to different bells, and different audibility, I agree but check out the bells on the bike around the city. Quite a number are exactly this bell, mainly because it’s MEC and it’s cheap. I don’t think this one is any better or worse than your typical bike bell. We, of course, disagree about the “civility” of the horn.